On 5 May 2022, at 8:38, Michael Benson wrote:

> In a windy piece in the NYRB on her last book, Jackson Lears
> tries to palm Applebaum off as someone under the influence
> of behavioral economist Karen Stenner, who (he says) views
> ideological differences as "merely" reflections of varying
> "cognitive styles." I think that's a bit dismissive, given
> that it's pretty undeniable that such "styles" (that is, of
> the kind that tend towards actual cognition rather than the
> reverse) tend to produce the most resistance to the
> authoritarian impulse and the most awareness of ideological
> manipulation. And he quotes Applebaum from her book
> "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of
> Authoritarianism" (Doubleday, 2021) as observing:
> "Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot
> tolerate complexity... there is nothing intrinsically
> ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ about this instinct at all." He
> calls this a view stemming from "the rarefied atmosphere of
> the meritocratic elite, where political disagreements
> evaporate into elusive distinctions between those who can
> tolerate complexity and those who cannot."

It seems like everyone's agreed, in theory if not quite so diligently in 
practice, that 'pre-screening' is for the dogs. That's no surprise, because, 
put so crudely, it's yet another ~name for the purity tests that have bedeviled 
so much left–right debate — or, better, left–right shadow-boxing — for much of 
the last century. But if we blur our focus a bit, it becomes more serious: not 
the cartoon version ('does so-and-so meet Ideological Criterion X, allowing me 
to sully my eyes and mind with their latest publication?'), but the subtler 
problem of assessing how to apply what we know of so-and-so's past work to 
inform what they're saying now. The cartoon version is can pass itself off as a 
scientific-executive rigor: decisive, clear, efficient, brief. The subtler 
version is and will remain an art: weighing changing contexts, looking for 
shifting emphases, tentatively filling in the blanks, teasing out 
idiosyncracies, and all the rest.

Lears is an interesting case in his own right. He's a southern intellectual, 
which used to be rare but now seems to be a critically endangered species. His 
dissertation, published as _No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the 
Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920_ (published in '81 by Pantheon 
when it was a leftish powerhouse and was nominated for an National Book Critics 
Circle Award) is a dazzling analysis of the fusion of anti-modernism, 
anti-intellectualism, and anti-cosmopolitanism during the US's 
industrialization. His second book, _Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of 
Advertising in America_ ('94), is narrower but great. I've only half-read his 
third, _Something for Nothing: Luck in America_ ('03), but have planned to get 
back to it for years now. If you take a step back, you can see how neatly these 
books also trace — beyond their ostensible focus — the rise of conservatism in 
the US, from the forces that coalesced into Reaganism through the neoliberal 
substitution of individualist fortune (in every sense) for social welfare. And, 
granted, this is really obscure, but his article on "Intellectuals and 
Intellectualism" for the _Encyclopedia of American Social History_, seemed 
utterly brilliant when I read it decades ago.  I think that might be where he 
diagnosed what he called the "cult of bourgeois social transparency" — the 
quintessentially yankee faith that souls can commune, and the kind of thing 
that would lead, say, George W. Bush to believe he could look into Putin's eyes 
and "see his soul." That might help us to understand Lears's impulse to write 
off Applebaum as mired in some cognitive style. His entire career has been in 
the north, but — and he knows this as well as anyone — his own cognitive style 
is pretty southern, if only in its sensitivities to northern pretensions and 
presumptions like "the rarefied atmosphere of the meritocratic elite."

So: Applebaum is a moving target, and Lears is too. Pretty much everyone worth 
paying attention to is as well — one good reason that the 'pre-screening' we 
all disavow (even as we do it, all the time) is unhelpful.  But, as Brian often 
notes, in a time when institutions and ideologies are collapsing, that kind of 
consumptive-cognitive filtering becomes especially dangerous: a way to 
'perform' recognizable political stances even as their foundations are melting 
into air. What we need now, more than anything, is intellectual 'transiness': 
openness, eclecticism, ambiguity, questing. Because, it seems to me, we know 
where the alternative is headed: nuclear annihilation.

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